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Creating New Advantages for America’s Military

Less than three decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States is once again confronted with great power competition in the Pacific, Europe, and beyond. Today, China’s military modernization and willingness to use military and paramilitary forces to further its ambitions threaten stability in the western Pacific. Similarly, Russian aggression against sovereign states in eastern Europe has created new challenges for the United States and its NATO partners. Both China and Russia’s deployment of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities such as advanced cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles threaten the U.S. military’s traditional means of power projection. In addition to these challenges, Russia and a newly unleashed Iran are taking advantage of the instability that exists in the Middle East to gain leverage over weak regional governments.

Unfortunately, the U.S. military is not well postured for this nascent long-term competition. After fourteen years of defense budgets that were skewed toward supporting counterinsurgency operations, many of DoD’s existing weapon systems—a preponderance of which were designed forty years ago—cannot survive in contested areas. Moreover, a near-continuous series of force structure cuts since DoD concluded its post-Cold War “Bottom-Up Review” in 1993 has resulted in a joint force that is now sized to conduct only one major regional conflict, which is contrary to DoD’s long-standing requirement of being able to fight two major conflicts. These cuts have taken a toll on America’s service members; a shrinking force structure combined with frequent back-to-back deployments have created shortages in some career fields, such as pilots, unmanned aircraft crews, and joint planning staffs. Consequently, our military can no longer afford budgets that trade between near-term readiness and long-term modernization.

As the next administration addresses these challenges, it must also recognize that established U.S. military approaches to projecting power may no longer be viable. Access to modern technologies has lowered the bar for adversaries to develop or procure capabilities such as precision-guided weapons, unmanned aircraft, and electronic warfare systems. Combined with new operational concepts for multi-domain, “informationized” warfare, these and other advanced systems are increasing the range, speed, and lethality of America’s enemies. The Department of Defense cannot overcome these challenges by incrementally upgrading its current capabilities, nor should it focus exclusively on fielding new high-end capabilities. Instead, it should develop and field a “high-low” mix of forces that can sustainably address the demands of counterterrorism operations in more permissive environments as well as defeat higher end challenges from more capable adversaries.

The next administration must also address the growing cost of U.S. military personnel and aging weapon systems. If current cost growth trends continue, flat or nearly flat levels of defense spending could create a brittle force that will be unable to prevail in conflicts against highly capable adversaries. Reforms are necessary across DoD, from compensation to acquisition and beyond, to help restore our military’s competitive edge.

The Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) addressed these concerns in a multi-think tank exercise designed to explore alternative strategies and future force structures. The exercise allowed CSBA and four other independent think tanks to rebalance DoD’s plans and programs over the next decade unconstrained by defense budget caps imposed by Congress.

After considering the strategic, operational, and resource challenges outlined above, CSBA’s rebalancing choices increased defense spending by $572 billion over the next decade above the President’s 2017 budget request. This increase funded a more robust posture in the Pacific to meet U.S. security commitments, stationed additional forces in Europe to counter Russia’s conventional and subconventional aggression, deployed capabilities to deter Iran and North Korea, and sustained long-term counterterrorism operations. And, perhaps most importantly, the strategy funded cutting-edge capabilities that will create new advantages for the U.S. military, rather than reacting to emerging threats by incrementally upgrading its existing weapon systems.

CSBA’s strategy prioritized the development and procurement of new capabilities such as survivable, multi-mission unmanned systems, undersea warfare systems, directed energy weapons, higher capacity air and missile defenses, and precision-guided munitions such as hypersonic cruise missiles capable of penetrating enemy defenses. Furthermore, many of these new capabilities have the potential to defeat A2/AD challenges at cost-exchange ratios that are more favorable to the United States than simply buying ever-more sophisticated—and increasingly costly—variants of current systems. The CSBA team also increased DoD’s Active Component end strength by approximately 97,300 personnel to accommodate the fielding of new forces and capabilities. At the end of the ten-year planning period, CSBA’s investments would grow the Army’s end strength to 505,300 personnel, increase the Air Force’s pilot force, and add 77 ships to the Navy’s fleet.     

CSBA’s rebalancing strategy recommends investments that would create a force that is more capable of operating in a future where the boundaries between peace and conflict are increasingly blurred, where an aggressor may seek to achieve a fait accompli before their opponents can respond, and where enemies may have more options to escalate conflicts than ever before. The strategy and its accompanying investments would better prepare the United States to engage in renewed great power competition and maintain an element of national power that has proven essential to a rules-based international order—an American military that is second-to-none.

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